The Collected Voice: Three Recent Essay Collections of Note
Robinson, Marilynne. When I Was a Child I Read Books. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 206 pp., $24
Patchett, Ann. This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage. Harper, 2013, 320 pp., $27.99
Cohen, Michael. A Place to Read: Life and Books. Interactive Press, 2014, 256 pp., $24
In twenty-four years of editing for TMR, I’ve edited nonfiction about birth, cremation, love, work, money, fear, insanity and religious mania, violence, history, Shakespeare, art, race relations, family and global and American landscapes. A wealth of subjects—but what has made some pieces rise above the others, in quality and in the way they’ve held on in my memory, has only rarely been the subject; it’s the writer’s voice that made them stand out. More than fiction, where plot and character are the first things to engage the reader, an essayist must cultivate voice, then all those other considerations that make an essay memorable: subject, argument, narrative, language, etc. As Joyce Carol Oates wrote in 2000 in her introduction to The Best American Essays of the Century, “All essays are an expression of the human voice addressing an imagined audience, seeking to shift opinion, to influence judgment, to appeal to another in his or her common humanity.” As a reader, it’s that one-sided conversation I’m after: an assured voice telling me something in a way that convinces me it is worth hearing.
The three collections reviewed here are diverse in their agendas and prospective readers, but each succeeds; each speaks eloquently, and each will repay readers for the time spent listening. Each is distinguished by a capable voice that reveals the author’s preoccupations: Marilynne Robinson’s with a vision of America that is slipping away, Ann Patchett’s with the vocation of writing, Michael Cohen’s with the pastime and passion of reading.
“In this climate of generalized fear civil liberties have come under pressure, and those who try to defend them are seen as indifferent to threats to freedom,” Marilynne Robinson writes in “Austerity as Ideology,” an essay that first appeared in The Nation under the title “Night Thoughts of a Baffled Humanist.” The third piece in her collection, When I Was a Child I Read Books, is an alternately “baffled” response and deliberate argument. In it, she takes issue with the way America’s new brand of conservatism has demonized liberal thought, elevated capitalism to the status of an incontrovertible creed and, in the process, turned unduly credulous Americans against long-established public institutions designed for their benefit—all of this through a concerted fear-mongering that has painted central government as the people’s worst enemy. Robinson agrees on the point that we may be in danger, but not about the reason:
The world is indeed dangerous, and for this very reason, the turning of our society, and of Western society, against themselves is flatly contrary to any rational strategy of self-defense. But it is highly consistent with a new dominance of ideological thinking, and it is very highly consistent with the current passion for Austerity, which gains from it status as both practical necessity and moral ideal. Anxiety has taken on a life of its own. It has become a sort of succubus on our national life.
She points out that there is nothing particularly capitalist about many institutions of American society: public higher education, the postal system, the GI bill, Social Security, the graduated income tax—all are “massive distributions or redistributions of wealth meant to benefit the public at large.” Such practical provisions for the public good have been a crucial component of our freedom, she believes, and they’re characteristic of modern Western nations’ attempts to build societies “that, by historical standards, may be called humane.” Here, most of her readership will be nodding its head.
But then, there’s her intimacy with the Bible, reminding us that Robinson is not just an American liberal intellectual but a Christian American liberal intellectual. The biblical imperatives of generosity and altruism are lifted up in one way or another in many of the essays—a direct challenge to Tea Party conservatives and those strident religiousright advocates of budget-slashing allied with them. This is a politicized collection, though Robinson does not seem interested in identifying specific antagonists. Her concerns are with a culture in which the term “democracy” has been so redefined as to be unrecognizable, and with the fact that an unnamed contingent has “turned on our heritage.” She doesn’t care so much about naming that contingent. These are concerns that run throughout the collection, as she indicts the economics of the past several decades, and especially of this present one, as a “corrosive influence” that is destroying almost everything of worth about America.
At the end of “Austerity as Ideology,” Robinson’s tone becomes nearly prophetic as she muses on what the outcome might be of the current clamor for austerity. We have entered an era of “rationalist purgation,” she says ominously, and the prospect is not bright, especially where it comes to the education of future generations. Having myself butted heads with people on issues where one of us was talking about principles and the other about ill-advised action that ran counter to those principles, I can imagine that the people who most need to grasp Robinson’s argument are the ones who will never hear it and would not understand it if they did. At the end of the essay she speculates about the end of humanity and what we might see if we could look back at ourselves after we’re gone:
What about us was of interest, if we imagine looking at ourselves in retrospect? That we made civilizations, or that we drove them to the ground, reduced them to rubble? I won’t pretend that this is a real question. We make wealth, and we destroy it. Our wealth is finally neither more nor less than human well-being. There is no necessary hypothesis; there is no value but what we value. The great temptation of money is that it seems to give us tokens, markers, by which things and people can be truly said to succeed or fail.
These are profound thoughts about the moral implications of prosperity; however, the bleak tone of this essay, and especially of the closing paragraphs, made me wonder what response Robinson hoped to elicit from her readers. Does she sees herself as a Cassandra here, able to conjure a picture of the dreaded future “austerity” but with only a small approving audience who will give credence to her warnings?
In reviewing the collection, August Brown of the Los Angeles Times wrote that Robinson is “confounding” among writers of the moment, having produced a “leftist political manifesto” that shares a common thesis with the Christian right: that America’s fundamental values come from the Bible. This is precisely what I appreciated most about Robinson’s book, which consistently invokes the Bible, especially the Old Testament, and her careful reading of American history to argue for liberal values, displaying an understanding of history and scripture superior to most people’s who might challenge her. In “Open Thy Hand Wide: Moses and the Origins of American Liberalism,” Robinson claims that Calvinism, often thought to be obsessed with sin and punishment, is actually the source of Christian liberalism—and that American liberalism originated in the Calvinist interpretation of the Old Testament. This kind of pronouncement is likely to surprise Christian conservatives and secular liberals alike—a marvelous double-edged dismantling of conservative and liberal shibboleths that she performs repeatedly. Among other evidence, she points to the way Old Testament law commanded compassion for debtors and the poor. She is liberal in another way in these essays, too—liberal with context. In this one, she opens with a passage from a lecture by George Santayana, then leads the reader through characteristic charges against Calvin’s theology to familiarize us with the “other side,” and on through the law of Moses and some Puritan writings to arrive at the question of how some American Christians could have come so far from the godly behest to love and care for each other and share their material blessings.
Some reviewers have complained that there’s not much humor in these essays. This made me wonder if they’d read all of them. I had the thought several times that I would not want to be the person impaled on the bayonet of Robinson’s wit—which is exceedingly sharp and dry. In “The Fate of Ideas: Moses,” she goes after the trend of critically debunking established texts and writers—notably, again, the Old Testament. She first fixes her attention on an Episcopal bishop named John Shelby Spong and his 1998 book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die. After paraphrasing in a tone of great reasonableness why Spong has dismissed the backbone of the OT, the Ten Commandments and the Torah, she finally lets go with her wit, remarking that “Christianity . . . suffers terribly at the hands of Bishop Spong, though he may not be wholly conscious of this fact.” She tramples jubilantly over his argument that because the Bible’s authors posited a flat earth, a lot of what they wrote must be wrong: “The earth, the bishop tells us, has been proved by science to be spherical! And space to be empty! He is heroic in his pursuit of the implications of this myth-shattering roundness so lately recognized as a feature of our planet.” After quoting his analysis of “up” as a spatial image dependent on Earth’s flatness, an idea he says can’t really be fathomed by the modern mind, she observes drily, “It’s amazing we post-Copernicans can even get out of bed.”
Of the other essays, my personal favorite was “Who Was Oberlin?” in which she explains how nineteenth-century Protestant revival inspired settlement of the American Midwest and led to the planting of a number of private liberal arts colleges throughout the region—including, of course, Oberlin. They are colleges I think of fondly because I was educated at a similar Midwest liberal arts college, part of a consortium with these schools. In the nineteenth century, Oberlin was a center of social reform and progressive causes, most famously abolitionism; the school also admitted women as early as 1837. Robinson reminds us that education, social reform and evangelical Christianity once went hand in hand in the Midwest. “Why does it matter whether or not this past is remembered?” she asks toward the end of the essay—and answers herself with another weighty question: “What was lost when this past was forgotten?”
I have always thought of Ann Patchett as a novelist—a serious one— whose novels have gained increasing respect, been well reviewed and have grown in ambition, assembling international casts and dramatic plots in Bel Canto and State of Wonder, especially. If I’ve thought of her as a nonfiction writer at all, it’s been for her 2004 memoir Truth and Beauty, about her years-long friendship with the difficult and troubled writer Lucy Grealy. I hadn’t considered her as an essayist and came to her recent collection curious but without any definite expectations. Only a few pages into This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, I was marveling at how expertly Patchett engages her audience.
First, there’s the utter clarity of every sentence. Take the opening of a very short piece, “The Paris Match,” which first appeared in the New York Times Magazine: “There are things people do when they are first in love: they surprise one another with trips to Paris; they make reservations in impossibly expensive Paris restaurants; they have conversations about former lovers while they eat in those impossibly expensive Paris restaurants.” In a single sentence composed of four totally lucid main clauses (with a few subordinate elements thrown in, but they never muddy things), Patchett easily draws in the reader and sets up the situation. The subject is a lot less transparent than Patchett’s prose: a fight over a maddening word game early in her romance with her husband, Karl—a conflict that has remained a “tattoo” on their relationship. This penetrating little essay about the sort of incident that can cast a shadow over a couple reminded me of something Colette might have written—not because it takes place in Paris but because it perfectly illustrates how love is undermined by the tiniest things that people can’t forgive.
It’s not unusual for a collection of any genre to more or less compile itself unintentionally, but the evolution of Patchett’s collection was more accidental than most. In fact, she resisted collecting any of the large number of short magazine pieces she had written over the years before her novel sales amounted to anything—years when she made her living freelancing for publications such as Seventeen and Vogue. “I thought of the work I did as being temporary, with a lifespan that would, in most cases, not exceed a magazine’s last tattered days in a dentist’s waiting room,” she writes in her introduction, “but the essays kept resurfacing.” Working in favor of an incipient book was a persistent friend who was determined to see some of her best nonfiction collected. And the fact that she had, literally, a bin of short pieces of commercial magazine writing to pick from; and that she is Ann Patchett, a novelist whose talents were already known and admired, and whose status among literature lovers had been further enhanced since she joined the battle against Amazon by colaunching an independent bookstore, Parnassus Books of Nashville, a few years ago. A number of the shorter magazine pieces suffer a bit from being collected with the longer, more serious essays: I was not so struck by the seasonal “How to Read a Christmas Story,” which opens the collection, and wondered why Patchett chose it to lead off, but like every other essay in the book, it is pleasantly readable. In Patchett’s hands, you simply relax and go along with the voice. She makes it very, very easy for the reader to simply read.
If the book has one big theme, it’s Ann Patchett’s identity as a writer. She is one of those writers who knew from the start that she wanted to write and who has been able to make a living at it through a confluence of talent, a lot of work, smart career decisions and the X factor of luck. She writes about her vocation as a perfect job and a great joy. I expected at first to become annoyed by this stance, but in the end that just didn’t seem fair: Patchett writes with so much evident pleasure and commitment to her craft, and always with a striking clarity that comes from years of magazine writing. If there are readers who can muster irritation at her for taking so much satisfaction in doing something well that she’s worked for years to be good at, I’m not among them. In “The Wall,” a fascinating longer essay, she describes a book on police work she planned to write in her thirties. In the name of research, she even passed the Police Academy entrance exams and planned to go through the training (she decided she wasn’t cut out for it, however, and never wrote the book). “The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir about Writing and Life” is another of the more substantial pieces and also one of the most recent. In it, she honestly assesses the pros of MFA programs (“You can learn more, and more quickly, from other people’s missteps than you can their successes.”) and their cons, discusses the problem with summer workshops (“I stopped teaching in summer programs a long time ago because I felt uncomfortable with the promises that were being sold.”) and offers her opinion of other fledgling writer moves. She describes her undergraduate education at Sarah Lawrence, where she was fortunate to have as teachers Alan Gurganus, Grace Paley and Russell Banks. Banks once told her she was a polished writer but “shallow.” “There are in life a few miraculous moments when the right person is there to tell you what you need to hear and you are still open enough, impressionable enough, to take it in,” Patchett writes of that conversation. “When I thought about the writer I had wanted to be . . . that person was not shallow. I would go back to my better, deeper self.”
That last comment is about as confessional as Patchett gets. There’s a decorum in what she chooses not to say that matches the decorum of her language, which is always transparent, never excessive. I was most conscious of this in “The Love between the Two Women Is Not Normal,” about Truth and Beauty, the previously mentioned memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy. The piece describes the outcry when the book was chosen for the 2006 freshman summer reading program at Clemson University. A parent who served on South Carolina’s Commission on Higher Education read the book, found it to be offensive for the usual reasons and stirred up other parents, who joined him in publicly demanding that the reading assignment be rescinded. The university stuck to its decision, and Patchett fulfilled her guest-speaking commitment and arrived to make an awkward and defensive speech to the freshman class. She had already been called out by Grealy’s family for writing revealingly about Lucy, and this misguided incident must have only added to the bruising. But whatever her feelings at the time, we see very little of them, only the author’s mildly ironic observations about the silliness of the whole debacle. She concludes the piece almost philosophically: “Some people find sex and suffering and deep friendship between women unpalatable subjects, and seeing this book bearing down on their children, they no doubt felt they had to try and stop it. They didn’t succeed, but I seriously doubt that anyone was harmed by completing the assignment.” It occurred to me while reading this essay that Patchett never lets her reader squirm or feel uncomfortable, which made me trust her voice a little less.
If Patchett’s big subject is her career as a writer, Michael Cohen’s is the assorted thoughts of an intelligent, observant reader. Of the three books of essays reviewed here, Cohen’s aligns most closely with the essayistic tradition. In a comp/rhetoric course I took a very long time ago in grad school, the teacher offered a definition that I’ll paraphrase loosely (the exact words are gone from memory). An essay, he said, is a “personal reflection on a matter of general interest.” And that description certainly fits the twenty-two, mostly short pieces collected in Cohen’s book, as does Samuel Johnson’s characterization of the essay as a “loose sally of the mind.”
The “sallies” here are about a lot of things, some quite unexpected: notebooks, the author’s learning to fly in his sixties, roadside shrines to the dead, men’s clothes. In this last, “Men in Uniform,” Cohen contemplates the lack of creativity and variety men bring to dressing themselves, a sameness that in his opinion has great advantages and only a few drawbacks. The ultimate uniform is the tuxedo, a “brilliant” costume because, among its other attributes—which include setting off the “spectacular” attire of one’s female companion—there’s no question about whether it is appropriate for the sort of occasion to which a man wear might wear one. “I need never worry whether my costume is going to look expensive or exclusive enough,” he says. “And the tuxedo works for every degree of formality, from the Tinyville Charity Ball to the White House Gala.” The essay charms in its close view of the modest subject of men’s dress, and along the way, Cohen is generous with both associations and information—so we get a little history of the tuxedo, a short reflection on its female analogue, the “little black dress,” some etymology and further discussion of other men’s “uniforms”: chinos and button-down shirts and so on. As in almost all the essays, Cohen turns frequently to texts—he’s a curious and exploring reader, so we revisit The Preppy Handbook (a shiver of déjà vu there), among other books about popular style.
I hope I haven’t been unfair in picking one of the shorter, less substantial pieces in the book to mention first—Patchett’s collection also includes some slim pieces (there is only length and seriousness with Robinson). Cohen’s tone is often gently humorous, but there is a precision and thoughtfulness to every essay that saves even the least serious ones from slightness. The thoughtfulness is often directed toward reading and related activities—Cohen is a former literature professor who traded scholarship for personal essays after retiring (every scholar should be such a graceful writer). In “Selling My Library,” an essay that first appeared on the TMR website, he writes about deciding to downsize his book collection by selling off the ones he wants less, the “freeloaders,” on the Internet. It’s possible to be a “transcendent” lover of books without needing to possess the physical objects, he says. Like most of the other essays, this one is allusive and readerly, giving nods to T. S. Eliot, Anne Fadiman, Ray Bradbury, John Milton, Washington Irving, Don Quixote, John Barth, a bunch of mystery writers and too many others to name. Another of these readerly pieces is “A Retiree Reads Proust and Montaigne,” which manages to be both chatty and astute. It’s the consciousness of these two French writers, about writing and about self, that attracts him. “For both Proust and Montaigne, the important life, the one that is most real, is the internal,” he writes. I had the sense that this is somewhat true for Cohen, too.
Though virtually every piece deals with books, some are more broadly about subjects other than reading, and several of those were my favorites. In “The Victims and the Furies,” he makes a wise and perceptive argument against the death penalty, a subject in which he has a personal stake. In “My Hypochondria,” he writes about the sudden obsession with his body that began after a benign episode of atrial fibrillation. In the hospital, as he watches an ultrasound image of his heart—“First a spasm in the top third of the screen, a blossom of light spreading and dissipating, then a spasm at the bottom”—he marvels at its consistent beating and then starts to doubt that it will continue:
The conviction began to grow in me that this constancy and this perseverance was more than amazing; it was magic. I saw the little pump as just another piece of connective tissue, like the ones that had been failing me over the last year. “It cannot continue to do that,” I thought. . . . “It will stop. Maybe in five more beats . . . Maybe in a thousand, but it will stop. And when it stops, I will die.”
The essay, more narrative than many of the pieces, takes us through a period of physical ailments and Cohen’s anxiety about what is happening to his body, until he finally lets go of his fear following a conversation with a terminally ill acquaintance. “There are reasons why our skin is not transparent like some jellyfish’s,” he concludes. “The skin is the rightful limit of our concern . . . we gain no advantage from being able to see our secret hearts.” A lot of health gurus would be out of business if we were all so wise.
In his introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Philip Lopate says, “Montaigne may not have been, as he claimed, the first writer to take himself as his subject, but he was perhaps the first to talk to himself convincingly on the page.” Cohen has taken his cue from Montaigne in essays in which he talks to himself intimately but also broadly about the texts that engage his interest and inform his varied subjects. He doesn’t have Patchett’s honed sense of her reading audience, but the essays please, and I found them just as readable and sometimes deeper. While Robinson makes no concessions to the reader who lacks her intellectual rigor, Patchett cultivates a much more accessible persona but one that at times seemed too buoyant to make me a complete covert to her nonfiction. Cohen lacks the cachet of the other two writers and some of their expertise, but he strikes a happy balance, writing with apparent candidness to well-read, thoughtful readers like himself.
Anita Loos: The Soubrette of Satire
“Work is more fun than fun.” ~ Noel Coward
F. Scott Fitzgerald became the spokesman of the 1920s, but it could have been Anita Loos if she had been game for the role. Her novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, a story of a beautiful gold-digger’s antics, is just as evocative of the bathtub-gin era of American history as Fitzgerald’s early work, This Side of Paradise.
Perhaps the mantel went to Fitzgerald and not Loos because of her special affection for the demi monde—shady ladies, con men and charlatans all-around—rather than spritely flappers and their coiffed beaus of the Ivy League. Maybe it was the rakish company she kept—hustlers, tarnished ladies, and the occasional con-artist gentlemen, along with Hollywood’s working class of writers and actors. Or perhaps she was simply too old when the jazz age was ushered in; she was nearly forty when Blondes was published in 1925. When asked if she was a flapper, she characteristically replied, “The only thing I ever flapped was the pages of a yellow legal pad.” Like Fitzgerald’s, her first novel became an instant bestseller, selling out in a day. Blondes’ sardonic depiction of the underside of jazz-age frivolity, a theme Fitzgerald would later tackle with high seriousness in Gatsby. Truth be told, Loos was simply too busy working to care about her cultural ranking or place on the bestsellers list. She liked having a hit on her hands, but the work was its own reward.
After the fuss over Blondes had settled and she’d had her fill of being a fêted author, she returned to Hollywood in 1931 to resume her screenwriting career. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had offered her a thousand dollars a week to join their stable of writers. One of her co-workers was Fitzgerald, whose literary star had fallen hard. One of her first jobs for Irving Thalberg, the head of the studio, was to re-write his adaptation of Katharine Brush’s novel Redheaded Woman, a saga about a trollop’s progress from secretary to wife of an aristocrat. It was comfortable territory for Loos—questionable class climbers were her specialty.
Corinne Anita Loos was born in 1888 in Sissons, California. Her father, R. Beers Loos, noticed right away that little “Nita,” the runt of the family with a mischievous demeanor and soulful, luminous eyes was a natural performer. He became a stage father. His connections in the San Francisco theater world got five-year-old Anita cast in A Doll’s House, followed by the leading role in David Belasco’s production of Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Anita’s parents’ marriage was unhappy: “My mother was an earthbound angel and Pop was a scamp.” She preferred her father’s company, though she resented being the family’s main source of financial support when he failed to keep various theater managing jobs.
At sixteen, shy of five feet tall and with a boyish figure, she looked the baby vamp. Her youthful appearance, mature personality, and versatile acting ability kept her center stage. Her father loaned her to the Empire in exchange for pirated scripts that came from cribbing Broadway shows and then selling them for a fraction of the cost of royalties. For a time, Anita did double duty. Outfitted in a blond wig and billed as Cleopatra Fairbrother, she performed at the Empire while acting at the Lyceum under her own name.
Despite her stage charisma, Loos didn’t fit in at school. The girls thought actresses little better than prostitutes, while her child-like looks didn’t appeal to the boys. She later recalled that she knew she was destined to be an outsider, largely commenting on life rather than participating. She also knew that she hated acting; the profession was full of “numbskulls and narcissists.”
Anita Loos wanted to be a writer. She spent hours reading at the San Diego library and in her dressing room at the theater. She hatched a plan to become the New York correspondent for the local papers that were more interested in what was happening in the big city than in their own backyard. Though never having set foot in New York City, she created a credible bulletin of events by assembling article fragments from New York papers. Her ingenuity got her a job writing about sports and entertainment for the New York Morning Telegraph for ten cents a word.
Loos’ father suggested that she try penning a drama. He’d written several one-acts for his own theater and helped her with the form. Her first produced play was The Soul Sinners, a piece of juvenilia she was later happy to forget. Emboldened, she turned her attention to film. Her first script, The Road to Plaindale, depicted a world-weary couple who moves to the heartland only to regret it. She sent it off to the Biograph Company in New York, and in a few weeks she received a letter of acceptance and a check for twenty-five dollars. Within in the next six months, she sold seven more scripts, making $105, an impressive sum for a newcomer.
The New York Hat, a twelve-minute one-reeler, was her first produced script. D.W. Griffith directed and Mary Pickford starred in the story of a young woman, whose purchase of an expensive hat results in scandal when local busybodies slyly spread rumors that there must be a man involved since she’s too poor to buy such finery. With what would become her trademark humor and wit, Loos keeps the potentially moralistic, preachy tale lighthearted. Playing the child-woman, not unlike Loos herself, Pickford became enormously popular. With the success of The New York Hat, Biograph came to rely on Anita for material, and, though they didn’t pay as well as other film companies, she gave them first refusal.
Loos was convinced that married life was a clumsy, messy business and delayed it for as long as she could. For reasons she would later find inexplicable, she married Frank Pallma despite her father’s warnings that marriage was a mistake for an artist. After six months, Anita told Frank that she was going out to buy hairpins and never returned.
During the infancy of the industry, many women found their way into writing for movies. Half the films between 1911 and 1925 were written by women, and the numbers remained strong through the next several decades. Griffith had recently merged with two other film giants to form Triangle Pictures, and he wanted her on board. He paid her seventy-five dollars a week plus a bonus for the scripts that went into production.
Anita moved into the Hollywood Hotel, a place for actors and writers who couldn’t afford a house, and got to work. Triangle’s script department was supervised by Frank Woods, who became an avuncular presence in her life. She quickly tackled her first Triangle Pictures screen credit, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The consensus at the studio was that Loos was good, but they wanted more action and fewer words.
When Triangle Productions lured Douglas Fairbanks from Broadway, Griffith wanted to keep him before the camera, and Loos was set to the task of writing scripts to make that happen. Whether His Picture in the Papers was found in the files at Triangle and revised for Fairbanks or whether it is a Loos original is unknown. It was certainly about a character Loos could have invented: the hero falls for a girl who wants him to get his pictures in the papers. He gets involved in a series of improbable adventures and winds up on the front page of all the dailies. It was a hit for Fairbanks. They would make nine more movies together following the formula of a not-so-bright man who gets caught up in a series of escapades, extricating himself only through sheer physical ability—designed to show off his physique and acrobatic talents.
These pictures—five made at Triangle, the other four at Famous Players-Lasky—captured Loos’s ethos: if you wanted something badly enough you could will it into happening. She was earning as a writing team with John Emerson $500 a week and getting as much publicity in Photoplay as Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. One paper dubbed her “The Soubrette of Satire.”
While collaborating with John Emerson during her stint with the Fairbanks unit, Loos had begun to find herself attracted to him, despite his self-confessed promiscuity. Her friends warned that he was much older than she and narcissistic, but she was tired of being “fly-paper for pimps.”
When Loos’s and Emerson’s contracts were not renewed at Famous Players-Lasky, Anita was soon hired by William Randolph Hearst to write movies for his mistress, Marion Davies. In what would become a pattern, Loos had Emerson written into her contract. As she had done for Fairbanks, she created stories that best showcased the performer’s unique charm. The plot of Getting Mary Married centers on a wealthy ingénue who according to her father’s will loses all her money if she marries. The family falls all over itself trying to find a man interested in Mary and not her money. Hearst objected. He didn’t think there was a man alive who wouldn’t fall in love with Marion, money or not. Loos argued that there was no plot without conflict. Hearst relented as long as there were plenty of close-ups of his mistress. Getting Mary Married was one of the few Davies’ films to make money. Hearst wanted Anita to write more films for Marion, but she didn’t like his bullying. She was getting enough of that from “Mr. E” (what she now called Emerson), who signed his name to her scripts but did little else. Soon a better deal came along that would take her to New York.
The Schenck Studios hired Loos to write scripts for Norma Talmadge, a friend of hers from her days of working with Griffith. She created a number of flapper roles for Talmadge—A Temperamental Wife, A Virtuous Vamp among others—that were box office hits. Loos and Emerson took up residence at the Algonquin Hotel. Along with her good friend actress Tallulah Bankhead, Anita didn’t enjoy the Round Table crowd of witty New York literati who met weekly to gossip and as they saw it formulate literary taste. Anita found them overly rehearsed in their “spontaneous” witticisms. They seemed to her to spend more time talking about themselves and drinking than working.
Anita and Mr. E. married in 1920. As a wedding present, Joe Schenck, Norma’s brother-in-law and Anita’s boss at the studio, sent the couple on a European honeymoon. In Paris, Anita went shopping with the Talmadge sisters at Lanvin. When she entered the shop the manager swept her off to her office. She wanted to copy Anita’s boyish, “windswept” bob for her mannequins. She looked like a pert, provocative school girl, a style she would never outgrow. The manager also loved the short length of her dress’s hemline and took scissors to her own inventory. She couldn’t be more pleased that her image was affecting Parisian style. Loos would remain slender and preternaturally youthful looking well into her seventies.
During the next four years, she and Mr. E. took up residence in a small house in Gramercy Park, but by 1924 their savings had dwindled due to Mr. E.’s spending and imprudent investments. Rather than ride her coattails back to California, he stayed in New York while she boarded a train headed west to work on a new Tallmadge picture.
Apparently, out of a combination of boredom and annoyance with her good friend H.L. Mencken for bringing on the train his ditzy blonde “lady friend” who accompanied her halfway across country, she began work on the novel that would become Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, creating a complicated depiction of such a willing male playmate. In Los Angeles, she decided that Mencken would get a kick out of the manuscript and mailed it to him. It was a diary with grammatical errors and written in short story form. Not only did Mencken laugh; he insisted that it had to be published. He recommended Harper’s Bazaar, who accepted it immediately. Anita was urged to carry on with her heroine’s adventure.
Written in semiliterate stream of consciousness, Blondes tells of the adventures of Lorelei, a woman who men want to possess for her beauty, while she wants to possess them for their wealth. The novel conveys Anita’s views on love. In her world, sex has nothing to do with romantic love and practically everything to do with acquisition. She also conveys through her obtuse character her own soft spot for hustlers who overcome their limitations. Lorelei maintains her illusion of purity against all odds believing that she is equal to or better than other women.
Mencken convinced her to weave the tales into a novel and sell it to Liveright, who proved to be the highest bidder. The house’s list that year included Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, Hemingway’s In Our Time, Faulkner’s Soldier’s Pay and poetry by Eliot, Pound, and Robinson Jeffers. One critic called it the most notable list ever published by an American house. Blondes sold out overnight, and the second printing went so quickly that two more printings were released before the end of the year. The reviews noted Loos’s sly, ironic humor. And they credited her for being the first American author to make sex a fun read. The novel made her an international celebrity.
Mr. E was pleased with the infusion of cash but not with his wife’s fame. Mencken had written, “a husband may survive the fact that a wife has more money than he, but if she earns more, it can destroy his very essence.” This became prophetic in Anita’s case.
Loos did not rest on her laurels. She was restless when she wasn’t working. When MGM offered her a contract she took it. Again Mr. E. was more than happy to stay behind. Anita returned to California alone, and, at forty-three, resumed her old career writing for star personalities, this time Jean Harlow. The studio saw femme fatales as her specialty. They also valued her skillfulness with double entendre and innuendo in getting provocative material past the censors.
When Irving Thalberg died in 1936, life at MGM for Anita changed dramatically. Thalberg had been a task master but was fair. He also cared about making good movies. She saw Mayer and the majority of MGM producers as “foes to entertainment.” She believed that she could be happy anywhere if she was happy in her work. She did not renew her contract. Sam Goldwyn at United Artists was prepared to give her $5,000 a week, and she accepted. But Goldwyn was an erratic boss. She frequently went to work unsure of the film she was supposed to be making. She wrote in her diary, “Am pretty blue and despondent, but mustn’t let anyone know since nobody’s more unpopular than a broad singing the blues.”
By 1938, Anita was back at MGM. She did polishing jobs for them on a number of forgettable scripts until they bought the Broadway hit, The Women, an expose by Clare Boothe of in-fighting Park Avenue matrons. For a year, a number of writers worked on the adaptation, including Fitzgerald, who thought it a spiteful portrayal of femininity. Loos loved it. It captured precisely what she might overhear while having her nails done at Elizabeth Arden. She re-wrote the script in three weeks. The studio assembled a cast of leading ladies: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and Paulette Goddard, who would become one of Anita’s closest friends. She loved her time on set, watching the women compete for their own interests while director George Cukor struggled to keep them in line.
After the success of The Women, Anita spent five years working on middling projects and then briefly freelanced at Fox before deciding that fifty-five was the perfect time to return to New York and start a new life. She had had a few ideas for a play brewing for some time but the one that stuck was a cocktail party comedy about the potency of illusion called Happy Birthday. After several false starts, it finely debuted in 1946, starring Helen Hayes. Its trial run in Boston suggested that it would flop on Broadway but Loos worked on improving the script until opening night. It was a hit and ran for 600 performances.
In 1949, the second Broadway adaptation of Blondes, this time a musical, was also successful in large part because it launched the stage career of Carol Channing, who was a smashing success as Lorelei. Believing strongly in her star power, Loos had refused to let the show go on without her.
Her secret to success was to keep all burners going at once. In 1950 she wrote a novel, A Mouse is Born, about a film star who while confined to bed awaiting the birth of her first child recalls her checkered career. The novel sold poorly and the reviews were lukewarm, but she was too busy to notice. She had been hired to adapt Collete’s Gigi for stage. With Audrey Hepburn in the title role, the play opened on Broadway and made Hepburn an instant star. It ran for a year and went on to become a memorable film.
For the next twenty-odd years of her life she went on writing plays and reworking old ones. One was produced in London, others in smaller cities. But she did not have another work produced on Broadway and had in fact tired of the uncertainty and complexity of getting a project off the ground. She said, “It was easier getting a camel through a needle’s eye than getting a show on Broadway.”
She had one more act, as a memoirist. After learning that the stage actress Beatrice Lillie received a healthy advance for her life story, she wondered if a publisher would be interested in her Hollywood reminiscences. Three publishers jumped at the proposal with Viking coming in with the highest bed, a $25,000 advance with a generous royalty scale. Her breezy, seemingly tossed-off style took a lot of patience and revision. It was no different with her memoir, which took two years to write. She published A Girl Like I in 1966 to rave reviews. The critic for The Nation proclaimed that the book was “perhaps the most remarkable Hollywood memoir every written for its candor, wit and its intelligence.” The New Yorker hoped for a second installment. Though she was close to eighty and finding it harder and harder to buckle down to the usual regime, she obliged and produced Kiss Hollywood Good-by, which also sold well.
At the end of her life, Anita Loos was modest about her accomplishments. “I am a storyteller. That’s my only gift as a writer. And I am sure that’s why I was successful in the early days of the movies when plots were all that mattered.” She never let adverse criticism get her down or praise go to her head. The important thing was simply to keep working, as she had done for more than sixty years, producing screenplays, novels, memoirs, stories, plays and magazine articles.
She died of a heart attack on August 18, 1981. In a brief essay, she wrote, “All that anybody needs to learn are two short words: Behave yourself.” While she might have written about those who played the lines of social convention, she had always conducted herself marvelously, though with a generous and memorable dash of insouciance.
In 1922, Loos wrote the screen treatment, Wife Insurance, published here for the first time. With more development and tinkering with character and plot, the treatment became the film Red Hot Romance, directed by Victor Fleming and staring British actor Basil Sydney. This “thrill,” low-budget comedy spruced up with elaborate exteriors to give it an expensive look, describes the antics of Roland Stone, a spoiled young man living off his future income. Once he discovers that his late father’s will stipulates that he must sell life insurance at a profit for a year before the family estate goes to him, he devises a series of schemes and travels to exotic locales in his quest for success.
The Missouri Review would like to thank the film historian Cari Beauchamp, Angela Shanahan, the executor of the Loos estate, and Nancy Kauffman of the George Eastman House for their assistance with this project.
K.S. & S.M.
Wife Insurance: A Screen Treatment
by Anita Loos, 1922
Old Henry S. Stone, head of the Anglo-American Life Insurance Co., with headquarters at Washington, D.C., made pots of money at the insurance racket, and then shuffled off leaving a typical tightwad’s will.
His only son and heir, Roland, had never amounted to much, being easy going and not interested in work. So the old man had arranged to leave him an income of $35.00 a week until the age of twenty-five when he would come into the bulk of his inheritance, the old man figuring that Roland might learn the true value of money through the meagerness of his weekly stipend. As Roland was twenty-one at the time of his father’s kick-off, the will provided him with four years in which to find out the value of the dollar.
However, Roland had an altogether different philosophy of life. Figuring that he was to be rich at the age of twenty-five he merely ran up bills for daily necessities of life, which in this case, consisted of expensive motors, yachts, airoplanes, vintage wines, sable line overcoats, and huge quantities of flowers sent to the girl of his dreams, Anna Mae Byrd, the daughter of old Colonel Byrd of Virginia.
Roland might have lived a very comfortably in the aristocratic old Stone mansion on Connecticut Avenue, except for the fact that he had no money for the servants required by such a large establishment. However, in the place of staff, he had one man who was everything combined—cook, valet, secretary, companion, guide, philosopher and friend—and who worked without any other salary than the promise of Roland that he would be paid when Roland came into dough.
This factotum’s name is Fingey Tucker, an ex-gangster and a gentleman to the core, played by Jimmy Durante.
We pick Roland up at the age of twenty-four years, six months—with only six months to go before he will be a rich man. But things are in a bad way, for Roland’s creditors, after three years and a half of stalling, have closed down on him and supplies had been cut off at their base.
Finally Fingey, always a man of resource, has an idea. Why not start to sell off the furniture, bric-a-brac, and objets de vertu, in order to get ready cash and stop the squawks about money mad creditors?
This idea strikes Roland as being masterly—so Fingey picks up a couch and starts to square with the delicatessen.
“Wait a minute!” cries Roland, grabbing up a large marble nude of a beautiful woman. “See if this will satisfy the plumber!”
Fingey takes one look at the marble lady. Says he, “She’s a little bit static for the plumber, Boss—a little static!”
However, balancing on the couch on his back and carrying the nude, Fingey has again started off when Roland picks up a small ivory elephant, puts it in Fingey’s other hand and says, “Take this and buy Miss Anne Mae some orchids.”
We now go to the home of Anna Mae Byrd, whose father, the Colonel, has been hanging around Washington for forty years, waiting for a job first promised him by President Garfield.
The Byrds are poor but proud, and Anna Mae is much courted as one of the prettiest girls in Washington.
Her greatest admirer, next to Roland, is a small time lobbyist named Jim Conwell. Anna Mae is not in love with Conwell but he is always bragging about his high connections and making the old Colonel extravagant promises about the influence he can bring to bear on the President to get the Colonel a big diplomatic post, so Anna Mae is grateful to him.
The day in question, she is serving tea to Conwell, and thanking him for his exquisite little antique ivory elephant which Conwell tells her he picked up that morning in a pawn shop. When Roland rolls in and presents Anna Mae with the orchids for which Fingey paid be hocking the selfsame ivory elephant, Anna Mae is so taken with admiration for the exquisite bit of ivory that she tosses Roland’s orchids aside with scarcely a glance—and to add insult to injury, Jim Conwell sits on them.
This indignity rather puts the crusher on Roland, and he hasn’t the nerve to go through with the errand on which he came—namely to propose marriage to Anna Mae. Discouraged, he finally leaves and goes back home to consult Fingey.
Roland finds Fingey in the bathroom mixing up a tubful of gin, and tells him that they made a mistake in not sending Anna Mae the ivory elephant instead of converting it into orchids. Roland explains that Anna Mae was so delighted over the elephant that, had he given it to her himself, he feels sure she would have accepted the proposal of marriage in the right spirit.
“So,” says Roland, “we’ll lay off the orchids and send her an antique the next time I get the courage to propose.”
Fingey considers this not a bad idea, and looks about Roland’s room for a proper bit to offer a lady.
“I got it, Boss,” he says brightening up. “You go right back and propose and I’ll carry her this.” At which he starts to pick up an eighteenth century bed.
Roland, always bashful, thinks so little of the idea that he crowns Fingey with a bookend. But Fingey is sincerely worried about losing Anna Mae, and tells Roland that if he stalls much longer, the girl will be snapped up by Conwell.
So Roland calls her up on the phone and, prompted by Fingey, manages to get out a proposal.
Much to Roland’s surprise, he learns that Anna Mae has loved him for months and doesn’t care how soon they get married.
Fingey, almost as delighted as his Boss, hears her reply over the telephone, goes over, picks up the bed, and starts out the door.
“Where are you going?” asks Roland.
“I’m going to hock this, Boss,” he says, “and buy her a ring!”
“Wait a minute,” cries the now courageous Roland. Then he speaks into the phone and asks, “Which would you rather have—an engagement ring or a bed?”
Anna Mae almost falls over in a faint.
That night at a cheap speakeasy which is a hangout of the lower grade of lobbyist, Jim Conwell is holding a meeting with Samson Bullova, the Minister of War of the Kingdom of Dalbania and Bullova’s lady friend, the Countess Munito.
Bullova, it seems, is getting ready to pull off a revolution to dethrone the king. Now, the American Consul to Dalbania has recently resigned, and Bullova has come to Washington to see if a new Consul can be appointed who will be easy to swing around to the new regime after the revolution.
“We want some old fool,” explains Bullova, “who looks respectable enough to get the appointment, and yet, on the other hand, can be—well, manipulated.”
“I see,” answers Conwell. “And I think I know the very man. Old Colonel Byrd of Virginia—clean record, easy to handle, and been waiting forty years for the job.”
Bullova and the Countess agree that Byrd sounds promising.
“In order to have him well in hand,” continues Conwell, “I’ll go along as his secretary and keep an eye on the old boy.”
And so the matter is settled—with Conwell delighted at the possibility of being able to keep an eye on Anna Mae in for-off, romantic Dalbania, without competition of Roland Stone.
Those of you who have tears to shed, unlock the shed, for it came to pass that Roland had to say goodbye to his beloved.
The parting is so terrific that Roland finally gets up courage to face Colonel Byrd and ask if he and Anna Mae can be married before he leaves. Colonel Byrd reminds Roland that hasn’t enough money to pay his own bills, much less to take on a wife.
“But,” insists Roland, “in another six months everything will be all right.”
“That,” answers the Colonel, “is what Garfield said to me in Eighty One.”
The Colonel, in fact, refuses to be moved, so Roland says a tearful goodbye to Anna Mae, promising to sail for Dalbania the day he receives his inheritance.
By the time Roland’s twenty-fifth birthday rolls around, he and Fingey have just one chair and nine cents to their name.
The executor of the Stone estate is Lord Mickleberry, the English partner of Roland’s father in the Anglo-American Life Insurance Company. He arrives at the Stone mansion in a taxi with Roland and Fingey, who went to the station to meet him. They haven’t enough to pay the taxi, but, assured of Roland’s riches, Fingey nonchalantly tells the taxi to wait.
They enter the Stone parlor, with its simple furnishing of one straight-back chair. Lord Mickleberry, on being offered it, looks about the otherwise empty room and comments on the lack of décor—to which Roland replies that “we Americans have very simple taste.”
Lord Mickleberry extracts a large paper from his portfolio and reads Roland the bequest, which is to wit:
“That Roland, having lived on an income of $25 a week, should now have learned the value of money. And that now he is to be given a job in the Anglo-American Insurance Company, in which he will learn the value of earning money. He is to hold the job for one year, and if at the end of the year, he has made money for the company, he shall have proved his worth and shall be given the bulk of the estate. If, however, he loses money for the company, the estate will go to a home for indigent street sweepers.”
Roland is brought back to earth by Fingey digging him in the ribs and asking, “Hey, Boss, how are we going to pay for that taxi?”
Roland looks about the room. They only have one asset left and Lord Mickleberry is sitting on it.
“Sneak the chair out from under the sucker!” he says sotto voce to Fingey. So Fingey lures his lordship off the chair, grabs it, and whisks it out to liquidate the taxi bill.
Roland than turns to Lord Mickleberry. In his mind is one leading idea. He has got, by hook or crook, to get to Dalbania.
“Your lordship,” he begins, “if I’ve got to sell life insurance, I’d like to get away from Washington.”
Lord Mickleberry says that this is all right with him, and suggests New York.
Roland then explains that New York is a fatal place for life insurance, and, in a retrospect which we show, he describes a recent visit he and Fingey made in New York in which we see the two going through death and destruction in the subway jams and on 42nd Street traffic whirlpools.
Lord Mickleberry then suggests Chicago, and in answer to that suggestion, Roland goes into a short gangster routine (which we show) revealing how he and Fingey waded through gore in Chicago while merely trying to buy an ice cream soda.
Lord Mickleberry is horrified, and at last suggests California as a salubrious spot in which insurance risks ought to be good.
But Roland than explains that California is worse on the insurance racket than Chicago. In fact, people in California never die, so they don’t even think of buying insurance. As an illustration of the fact we show Roland and Fingey playing leapfrog with a bevy of Los Angles lads of ninety.
By the time Roland has finished this story, Fingey returns from having squared the taxi driver with the chair. Fingey, always quick to pick up a cue, now butts into the conversation and suggests, “Gee, My Lordship, if you could only get Roland here to break out into new territory, in fact—to gird up his loins and tackle a brand new country like this here Dalbania.”
And so persuasive is Fingey that the interview ends by Roland allowing Lord Mickleberry to argue him into sailing for Dalbania on the very next boat.
Dalbania is a little kingdom in the wild mountains of far Eastern Europe, ruled by a romantic, hot blooded young king (King Zog) and a fire-eating council of robust, half-savage Dalbanian nobility. The capital, a city which is a strange combination of modern luxury and primitive poverty, is called Zinga.
Bullova, the Minister of War, aided by Conwell, has nearly organized the revolution, a large force of the army having already agreed to join the revolutionary party.
Sweet Old Colonel Byrd is sitting on the edge of this volcano, at peace with all the world in the fullness of his ignorance.
Conwell is desperate when he learns of the arrival of Roland, his rival in love. Bullova suggests that they drop a bomb on Roland during the revolution, but Conwell feels this would be dangerous as Roland is too well known in Washington.
The Countess, who is ever an optimist, suggests that there is some way to “get” every man—and she will put in a little of her time trying to learn what can be “hung” on Roland.
The Countess shadows Roland at the café in the hotel that night, when he breaks the news of the legacy to Anna Mae and the old Colonel.
Anna Mae says she doesn’t mind waiting another year for Roland, so long as they can be together daily, and the old Colonel is delighted that something has put Roland to work.
“Moreover,” continues the Colonel, “you’ll have to win to get Anna Mae.”
The Countess, having heard all the above, puts her brains to work and gets an idea. The idea being for Bullova and herself to befriend Roland, introduce him to the king and all the Council, and let him sell all of them life insurance just before they are to be bumped off in the revolution.
The next morning, as Roland sits drinking coffee at the little café in the public square, who should roll up but Conwell, accompanied by Buulova and the Countess. Roland invites them to join him and, during their conversation, Bullova takes such “a great fancy” to Roland that he offers to introduce him to the King and all the Council. In addition, and, as a “come on,” Bullova takes out a $50,000.00 policy for himself, as does the Countess.
Roland can hardly believe his luck. He and Fingey comment on it while Fingey gets him ready to go to the palace to meet the King and the entire Council.
At the palace, Bullova talks the King into insuring his life, chiefly by using the argument that he has insured his own.
Now, the King is a fine young fellow, a typical man’s ma, full of healthy zest of life and he and Roland immediately take to each other. The Council also is as great a group of boys as you might find at an Elk’s banquet—and Roland immediately becomes a pal to all of them. What is more, they take out big life insurance policies.
While this is going on, Colonel Byrd, at the Consulate, is being braced by Bullova who is backed up by Conwell and an armed guard.
“Colonel,” says Bullova, “we are instituting a revolution tonight! If you will advise the American President to recognize our new Government it will mean almost anything you care to ask.”
Colonel Byrd draws himself up to his full height. “Are you offering me a bribe?” he asks. And Bullova answers that he may call it what he likes. “You suggest that I barter the sacred honor of my country?” continues the brave old Colonel. “Why, that flag has flown a hundred and fifty years without a single stain on its fair surface!” Bullova sneers. “Get out of this house!” orders the Colonel.
Bullova turns to the armed guard accompanying him. “Who will take care of Anna Mae?” he cries.
“Don’t worry,” says Conwell with a sinister smile. “You can leave her here with me.”
Roland leaves the Palace walking on air and goes to join Fingey at a low dive at which Fingey hangs out, lured there by a Dalbanian barmaid. Roland, exhilarated, calls Fingey off into the booth where he orders drinks, and tells Fingey of his great good luck.
“I insured the King for a hundred thousand dollars, and each of the Council for fifty thousand dollars!” he exclaims.
Fingey whistles in awe.
“No matter what happens now,” says Roland, “I can’t fail!”
The two boys start to dip their noses into a couple of schooners when, from the next booth, they hear someone say, in whispers “The revolution starts tonight!” Roland and Fingey prick up their ears. “King Zog and his Council will be killed first!” continues the whisperer.
Roland is stunned for a moment, then the awful truth strikes home. “They’re going to kill everyone I insured,” he gasps.
In half a second he and Fingey are on their way to the American Consulate.
Arrived at the Consulate, Roland and Fingey find Anna Mae in terror over the capture of her father by revolutionaries. She has written an S.O.S. to an American gunboat which is in the harbor of Caspia, some distance away, and was just about to start out for the telegraph office with it. Roland takes it from her and says he will get it off if possible.
Roland starts to go, then hesitates, and stops. “I can’t leave you here unprotected,” he says.
“I’m an American girl,” protests Anna Mae bravely picking up a gun, “and can protect myself.”
So Roland and Fingey run off to see if they can reach the telegraph office before the revolutionaries take it over, while Anna Mae looks herself in her room.
The Army of the Revolutionists, led by Bullova, is mustered and ready to strike.
Conwell goes to Bullova.
“I want a guard,” he says, “to arrest Anna Mae and keep her safe for me.”
“All right,” says Bullova. And Conwell is given eight armed men to take Anna Mae into custody.
Roland and Fingey arrive in sight of the telegraph office, only to see it blown up, practically in their faces.
With no chance to get word the American gunboat at Caspia, Roland and Fingey head for the Palace to save the lives of King Zog and his Council.
Jim Conwell enters the American Consulate, goes to Anna Mae’s room and asks her to come out.
Anna Mae, considering him a friend, naturally unlocks the door, only to be taken into custody by Conwell’s guard, and told that she is to be locked up at Conwell’s home until the next day when their wedding will take place. She is led off, furious in her denunciation of the treason of Conwell.
Roland and Fingey have a terrific time getting into the palace to save the King. While they are arguing with the palace guard, the Revolutionary Army is on its way, full speed, to the palace.
Roland and Fingey finally manage to get in, and, to their utter dismay, find the King and Conwell too cock-eyed drunk to move—or even to realize what they are telling them.
However, when the Revolutionary Army actually opens fire on the palace and bullets start coming through the windows, King Zog comes to sufficiently tell Roland and Fingey of a tunnel through the floor, which leads to the Royal Prison.
With superhuman effort, Roland and Fingey get the King and Council down through the trap door just as Bullova is entering the palace.
Fingey peeks out though a slit in the trap door and gets a bead on Bullova with a gun.
“For God’s sake, don’t shoot him!” cries Roland. “He’s insured for fifty thousand.”
So Fingey drops the door, and, undiscovered by Bullova, Fingey and Roland escort the cock-eyed King and Council through the tunnel to the Royal Prison.
They get to the door at the end of the tunnel and summon the warden of the jail. The warden bows in deep obeisance when he sees Zog.
“My King!” he cries, kneeling.
“Get up,” says Roland. The warden rises. “I want you to lock this whole gang up until I get help,” he says.
The warden looks amazed. “Not for all the wealth of the universe would I lock up my noble King,” he cries.
“Here’s a dollar,” says Roland.
“I lock ‘em up,” says the warden. He comes out and helps Roland and Fingey boot the King and Council through the door into prison.
Bullova takes charge of the palace and sends out a proclamation saying, “The King and Council having fled, General Bullova proclaims himself dictator of Dalbania.
Bullova then turns to Conwell and the Countess who have entered the Palace as soon as the firing ceased. “Our first move,” says Bullova, “will be to capture and shoot our renegade King and his Council.”
Conwell laughs, knowing the result of this move on his hated rival.
Roland, having gotten the King and the Council safely locked up, tells Fingey to keep watch on them and hurries back to the Consulate where he hears from one of the Consulate servants that the Revolutionaries have taken Anna Mae off, and are going to make her marry Conwell in the morning.
No sooner has he heard this than Fingey runs in breathless, and states that the Revolutionaries paid the warden a dollar and a half and he turned over the King and the whole gang to them and they are all to be shot at ten o’clock in the morning.
“There’s only one chance!” exclaims Roland. “We must get to Caspia and bring the Marines.”
Roland and Fingey go to the railroad station only to learn that the Revolutionists are allowing no one to leave town.
As they are leaving the station in desperation, they find a native in an old Ford. Roland offers the native any sum if he will take Fingey to Caspia, while he stays and tries to get to Anna Mae. The native opens his mouth in awe. There are no roads to Caspia, and a mountain range in between.
“That’s all right,” says Roland. And turning to Fingey he adds, “Get in.”
Fingey gets in. The native protests, then refuses to go on such a wild goose chase. Finally Fingey puts a gun in his ribs and orders him to take off. The terrified native does.
On Roland’s way back to town he is arrested, taken to the Royal Jail and thrown in.
We now show a sequence of Fingey driving the Ford over the road-less mountain ranges of Dalbania, and facing every known variety of wild Dalbanian beast.
The next morning at ten, King Zog and his Council, all with terrific hangovers, are led out to the Palace Courtyard to be shot as a preliminary to the wedding of Conwell and Anna Mae.
Just at this crucial moment are heard loud cries of “The Americans are coming! The Americans are coming!” And sure enough, down the main street comes Fingey followed by the American Marines.
It is one year later, a year during which Roland and Fingey have practically played nursemaids to King Zog and his Council in their efforts to keep the boys alive until Roland’s time of trial is up.
But it comes at last—so that Roland proves his business worth to the Anglo-American Insurance Company, and is rewarded by a fortune and the bride of his choice.
Between Dreaming and Action: The Portraiture of Bill Brandt
One could argue that photography as an art form reveals the least about its creator. What’s being photographed already exists in the world; the photographer finds it, frames the image and presses the shutter. Whether wrong or right, this attitude suited Bill Brandt, a retiring, mysterious man who so successfully reinvented himself that toward the end of his life he was proclaimed Britain’s most renowned photographer. At the time, critics and collectors had no idea that he was German and hadn’t moved to London until his thirties.
Brandt also had a deep reluctance to talk shop. He wrote almost nothing about his own work. When he occasionally did speak about his photography, he used words such as “magic,” “fantasy,” “unknown,” and “bewilderment” to describe what happened between the moment of focusing the lens on a subject and taking the shot. Fortunately he had the eye of a poet, using light and perspective in ways that revealed his subjects as familiar yet strange. He often claimed that anyone could have taken his pictures. He was simply the one with the camera and the luck.
He was born Hermann Wilhelm Brandt in 1904 into the material comfort of an upper-middle- class German family; his father operated a successful shipping and banking business based in Hamburg. As a teenager, he suffered fragile health from tuberculosis, and he was sent to a sanitarium in Davos, Switzerland. During this time of forced inactivity, Brandt started watching movies, studying painting and playing around with his camera. He focused particularly on composition, lighting and atmosphere.
After his health stabilized, Brandt needed to decide what to do with his life. A therapist he had seen in Vienna while visiting his brother Rolf suggested he try photography. Brandt apprenticed himself at the Grete Kolliner studio, where he worked for nearly three years perfecting his darkroom techniques.
In the 1920s he went off to Paris to study with Man Ray. Years later, Brandt credited the surrealist photographer with broadening his skills. More importantly, Ray inspired in him a new excitement about photography and the world. Man Ray appreciated young Brandt’s darkroom expertisem but at the time didn’t think much of his photography. He would later reassess his opinion and credit Brandt with infusing English photography with elements of surrealism and the avant-garde.
Avoiding the stock identity of a ‘20s artist, Brandt shunned the frantic café society of Montparnasse in favor of exploring the less frequented, frayed margins of the city. He drifted around Europe, his private income from his parents freeing him from having to scrounge for work. Their support allowed him to work slowly and intentionally on his craft.
Brandt took his time breaking into the illustrated magazine market. Still, he was conscious of how much competition there was in Paris to get assignments. In London, the photographic scene had not yet taken off. The country was behind the continent in terms of art and photography. Brandt also wanted to find a place where he could turn himself into a new person. His brother Rolf recalled that “Billy” had always wanted to be English and belong to the “fairy-tale island” of his childhood fantasies. In 1934, he settled in London and made the city his permanent home. He selected as his professional name “Bill Brandt” and soon gave every appearance that he was a British-born gentleman.
With camera in hand, he took in the city with the sharpness of an outsider, producing two books that were careful studies of English life: The English at Home (1936) and A Night in London (1938). His photographs offered an inventory of British types—bobbies, tailors, homemakers, miners, chambermaids, schoolchildren, shopkeepers—and preserved the world of 1930s England that was disappearing forever.
While Brandt didn’t want to be pinned down to weekly assignments, he did produce quite a bit of work for Lilliput and Picture Posr and, later, Harper’s Bazaar. In fact, all his work in portraiture was commissioned by commercial magazines. He took these assignments seriously, wanting the photographs to be more than snapshots that only showed a likeness at a given moment. His images of Britain’s cultural, artistic and literary figures were meant to last.
When taking a portrait, Brandt said, “The photographer has to wait until something between dreaming and action occurs in the expression of the face.” He also believed that people were defined by the surroundings they had chosen for themselves; their landscapes were their spiritual homes. These backdrops conveyed essential qualities of their personalities. The photographs presented here show Brandt’s attention to a sitter’s face and setting, as well as to the unruly splendor of his compositions.
Bill Brandt died in 1983, leaving behind 5,000 or more pictures taken between 1927 and 1983. He had become something of an icon in Britain, although he seldom seemed to notice. He often felt that his pictures were too static and arty to be widely liked. In the end, photography, the career he had dreamed of as a child, was what mattered. It allowed him a safe but profound intimacy with the world that he might not have found otherwise.
A Conversation with Mary Roach
Mary Roach’s wildly successful books, including New York Times bestsellers Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, blend serious scientific inquiry with uproarious comedy, acute reporting, and frequently forgotten history. She makes complex science engaging and accessible to the average reader, but beyond that, she tells stories about extraordinary human beings. As the New York Times Book Review put it, “what she celebrates is the passion that drives the inquiry, that keeps people at their research despite the loneliness—and mockery. She may have a skeptic’s mind, but she writes with a believer’s heart.” Mary Roach has published six books, and her essays have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Discover, National Geographic, and Wired, among others. Her latest book is Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal.
This interview was conducted by phone in July 2014.
HUBER and SALESKA: You’ve written about cadavers and the afterlife, the science of sex, life in outer space, and your latest book, Gulp, answers all kinds of typically taboo questions about the process of eating and digestion. How do you come up with the topics for your books?
MARY ROACH: It varies, but it’s basically a “process of elimination,” which is something that as an adult I can’t say without feeling like I’ve made a childish joke. But it is kind of a process of elimination in that there are very few topics that really work for me because I’m looking for . . . I like to have a little science, a little history, something that lends itself to fun, humor, goofiness. I know it when I see it. But ultimately, I’m just indulging my own peculiar interests.
H & S: Was there a particular moment when you knew that human digestion was going to be the topic for your next book?
MR: When I was working on Packing for Mars, I came across a study that had to do with people in a nutrition department at Berkeley. They put them in a chamber and fed them—they were looking for food for a Mars mission, and they thought what would be easy to grow would be bacteria! They actually made a meal—meals—out of trillions of dead bacteria, which got me thinking that the science of eating and how we think about eating could be a fruitful and strange area to look into.
H & S: You wrote about that Berkeley study in Gulp, correct?
MR: Yes, that’s right. That was part of it. And you know, there’s always a variety of things that I have knocking around in the back of my brain: subjects that never quite found a home, that I want to circle back to, so there was some of that going on as well. Years ago, I’d done a short article that had to do with human flatulence, and I had gone to the Beano company. I had all kinds of fun, interesting material that I couldn’t use, which was tragic, to my mind, because it was some really entertaining stuff. That was rattling around back there, and a couple of other things. So there wasn’t, in the case of Gulp, an aha moment.
For Bonk there was definitely a single moment where I knew this would be the next book. I read a two-sentence reference to what they called the “colposcopic” films of Masters and Johnson; it was in a film quarterly review article, just a passing reference, and I thought, What is a colposcopic film? That’s something having to do with the cervix I think. Are they actually saying here that Masters and Johnson made films of the inside of a woman’s body when she was sexually responding? And it turns out, that’s what they did. The idea for Bonk came in that realization that, wow, if you’re going to study human sexuality, observe these sorts of intimate processes in a laboratory setting, you’re heading into some really bizarre, awkward terrain—and wouldn’t that be fun to explore.
H & S: Once you pick a topic, where do you go from there? What’s your process like as far as researching?
MR: It’s a months-long period of random flailing and sending out emails to strangers. When I start, I haven’t a clue about what’s going to be in the book or even what the book is about. I just know that I’m going to have to go through a period of three to six months of thinking, every week changing my sense of what the book is about, writing outlines that I then look at a week later and go, “Pfft, what was that? That’s ridiculous, that’s not what this book is about!” And I’m calling people, I’m e-mailing people, I’m just absorbing a tremendous amount of material, some of it from the Internet, some of it conversations and e-mails with researchers and people in the field, and picking people’s brains and figuring out what the book is about but also where I will go.
I’m very dependent on research that’s happening in the present, so I can go there and observe and describe, which helps make the books more interesting. I send out a lot of e-mails that say “Hey, what have you got cooking in the next six months to a year? What’s going to be going on?” I’m very specific with people. “I need something strange, fascinating, interesting, that I can see and describe and observe. I need a narrative, characters, dialogue. What’s going on? What have you got for me?” I do a tremendous amount of that. Literally thousands of e-mails over the course of a book go out to people I’ve never met, people who might end up being the focus of a chapter.
H & S: You mentioned developing characters and a narrative in your books. A lot of your writing is about human nature, more about the people you interview than it is about scientific facts. Could you talk more about incorporating that human aspect into your writing about science?
MR: I have an enduring affection and fascination for the process and people that make up science. I don’t specifically try to seek out “characters,” and I think you often don’t need to. Most of the people who are engaged in the subjects that I look into are pretty interesting. Whether its sex researchers or someone who’s devoted their career to saliva or somebody who does research with cadavers, there’s an inherent fascination in the subject matter of their work. Sometimes they’re quirky, fascinating individuals, the kind of person you might call “a character,” and other times they’re the opposite, somebody who’s under the radar—quiet, but they have this intense, passionate interest in what they do. Like the guy in Gulp who studies chewing and was almost apologetic, saying, “Oh, I don’t know if you’re even interested in this.” And you think, “Yes, it’s incredibly interesting! Not only what you’re discovering, but the fact that you have spent thirty years immersed in the muscles of the jaw and how they protect your teeth, how tiny a grain of grit you can detect with your teeth, and how everybody thinks teeth are blunt mallets but in fact they’re very, very sensitive.” That fascinates me, and I love to portray those people in their own setting, with their interests and passions. It’s just something that appeals to me.
H & S: We were very interested in the William Beaumont and Alexis St. Martin experiments because it seemed to be a place where curiosity and scientific passion turned into obsession—maybe even a lunacy of sorts. You get to interview people who are doing very specific scientific research that calls for passionate engagement with minute portions of the human. Do you ever find, in your research or interviews, people crossing that line between passion and obsession or between curiosity and lunacy?
MR: I talk to a lot of people who, when you try to sum them up in a couple of sentences, seem like they must be insane. For example, Beaumont peering into this guy’s stomach and doing these experiments for thirty years. Or Ahmed Jaffeek, who studied these reflexes in sexual intercourse that he documented. He published so many papers on the reflexes of sexual intercourse that when I looked at his body of work, I thought, this guy is either nuts or a pervert. And then when I met him and started to listen to what he was talking about and why he was doing it, and learned that he uses prostitutes because he has no choice in a Muslim country . . . the more you learn about someone, the more you have a context for their seeming lunacy, and you start to understand. It doesn’t seem like lunacy anymore. For instance, I hear, “Oh, my god, this woman studies saliva” and think, What the hell is there to know about saliva? Why would somebody want to study saliva? And then I spend a day with her and say, “Wow, saliva is amazing!” Now I’m the lunatic who’s going around saying, “Saliva is so amazing!”
H & S: Another aspect of human nature that you make really apparent is our tendency to latch on to popular science to solve issues. For example, all these world leaders and influential authors, etc. became really enamored with this Fletcherizing. Over the course of your research have you become warier of popular trends in health that are currently sweeping our nation— intolerance of gluten or things like that?
MR: Reading about people like Fletcher or the guy, what’s his name? Charles Tyrell? behind the Joy Beauty Life rectal fountain—the many many people who have advocated internal cleansing, irrigation, colonic irrigation—you begin to realize there are certain things about the human body that make intuitive sense, but in fact the body is a lot more complicated, and intuition is not really a good way to understand it. It’s very intuitive to think, “Oh, shit is stinky and disgusting. The less time it spends in me, the healthier I will be because it is poisoning me with its grossness and toxins; therefore if we speed up the process, we’ll be healthier.” This to the point where there were people cutting out entire healthy colons to speed up digestion and basically create chronic diarrhea. With respect to Fletcherizing, there’s still a very active fad for juicing, for turning things to liquid so that you can absorb more. Again, that seems intuitive, but you know what? Your stomach does a really good job of that, and in fact the fiber is a useful thing for you to have, and it works just fine. The process works fine the way it evolved, and you don’t need to latch on to these kinds of intuition-based fads.
H & S: You mentioned just now how it seems to make sense that you have crap in your body, and it’s smelly and stinky, so get rid of it and you’ll feel better. Do you think it’s more a cultural thing that we have this revulsion to feces, or is it something that has evolved in our species?
MR: Oh, certainly there is good evolutionary reason to stay away from feces. There are contagions and pathogens in the fecal matter. If somebody’s not well, you can contract all manner of illnesses, and there is also contaminated food in which fecal pathogens multiply, and you get sick from it. Before there was treatment for some of those diarrheal diseases, that sort of dehydration could kill you. So, yeah, it makes sense that we evolved an extreme wariness and disgust for shit. For want of a better word. Actually, there are plenty of other words, but. . . .
H & S: Though the tone of your books is fun and the facts are really interesting, we found the writing often edges on something even larger, as in Gulp, in the last couple of chapters, where you really question our culture’s revulsion toward the human bowel and point out that there’s less medical research on certain diseases and less public awareness in general of those diseases. More than being just entertaining, are your books a way to bring awareness about these issues?
MR: I don’t really have a larger mission in mind when I begin a book, but I do write a book and, you know, spend a couple of years on a topic. You start to realize things that you hadn’t realized before: that in fact people’s revulsion for this topic, including the revulsion of people involved in medical research, might have hindered the progress of research. So there’s good to be had in encouraging people to spend time considering these things. I mean, any time you can take a book a little beyond the realm of pure entertainment, I think it’s a good thing. But I don’t really have it on my to-do list when I write a book. It just evolves naturally during the process of immersing yourself in a subject.
H & S: In the final chapters of Gulp you talk a lot about fecal transplants and how, although they’re a very effective medical operation, they often aren’t done and aren’t covered by a lot of insurance companies. You also predict that in the future, bodily products will be used more and more for healing. Gulp came out in 2012, so we wonder if you’ve noticed any trends recently toward this kind healing, toward fecal transplants or similar medical procedures.
MR: Even from the time I began the book to the time it came out, people’s familiarity and acceptance of fecal transplants increased. I can’t tell you a percentage, but it went from me getting a universal response of “Seriously? You’re kidding? People do that? How is that legal? It’s disgusting” when I said “fecal transplants” to “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard those are pretty effective, and I’ve read something in The New York Times.” That was in about two years. Also, one of the major medical journals published a study clinching the efficacy of it—it was already known, but it was very hard to refute this study, that it was something that simple, cheap and very effective at saving lives. It was definitely a trend that was underway. And it coincided with a fad for probiotics that has been fueled by companies marketing products, spending a ton on advertising. There’s good science behind feeling positive toward healthy bacteria. It’s been a fairly significant turnaround in how people view their own bacteria.
H & S: Before you wrote your first book, you worked as a copy editor and a columnist and a writer for the San Francisco Zoological Society, and you published numerous articles in magazines. What made you first decide to write a book? What was your learning curve for that switch?
MR: I had long wanted to shift into writing books, but I never felt I had an idea with a capital I, something worthy of a book. I didn’t have sort of this book-length narrative that so many nonfiction books have. It actually grew out of my being shamed. I worked with this group, with a bunch of writers in San Francisco, called The Writer’s Grotto, and we used to make predictions for each other. Someone made a prediction that by the next New Years I would have a book contract, and in October I thought, “Shit, I have to have a book contract or I will be really embarrassed.” That was what got me rolling. Because writing a book proposal is something you’re not paid for. It’s on spec; it probably will amount to nothing, so you keep putting it off. I finally did it because of that. And also, I got a fortune cookie fortune, which is actually taped on my wall that said, “Try something new.” So it was a combination of little random, stupid things that forced me to write a book proposal. The other small thing that went on around that time is that an agent had called me, had read some of the Salon column pieces, and out of a few conversations with him and looking at the hit rates for the various columns, seeing which things people seemed most interested in, the proposal for Stiff came about. I had never had any sense that that would be a good book topic or that it was something I wanted to write a book about. It was based on the hit rates of that column and, you know, they were interesting topics I had explored in those columns. That’s where the book proposal came from. It wasn’t an aha moment, it wasn’t born of any passion or drive to write about cadavers. Like so many things in life, a few small things fell into place and moved forward.
H & S: You’ve developed a very distinctive style throughout your books. In Gulp, for example, you combine investigative journalism, historical nonfiction, biography and scientific essay. But it seems like this would be a very hard mix to master. Is this hybrid style something that came naturally to you?
MR: It is very much a hybrid, and it isn’t easy. It would be a lot easier, I think in some ways, to choose one of those things, but I think people enjoy learning about science as long as it is not too much of a slog for them, so they like having more than just a literary-nonfiction experience. My “literary nonfiction” isn’t good enough to pull them in. I need to entice them with the surprising, weird facts that I throw in. So it’s me scrambling to give more gifts to the reader to prevent them from putting the book down and going, “Ehh, I don’t know about this book, I don’t care.” It’s a mixture born of my own insecurity, I think, as a writer. Like I’m dancing as fast I can: “Here. Here’s some humor, here’s some science, here’s something surprising, here’s some history you didn’t know about. Keep reading, for god’s sake, don’t put this book down. Buy my next book, too!”
H & S: It’s a variety-show approach.
MR: Yes, yes, very much. It isn’t an inherently easy thing to do, to weave scientific fact, into a narrative that you want to be readable and fun. They don’t always mesh easily, and that makes my days sometimes very unpleasant. If it reads as though it’s easy, it’s misleading, because there’s a lot of head-banging and wailing and gnashing of teeth, to get biblical.
H & S: Do you have any favorite authors who inspired your style or whose work you go back to to help you get past certain writing problems?
MR: Yeah, early on, there were two authors whom I often cite as having been inspirational. One of them is Bill Bryson, who does what I was just describing so seamlessly. That is to say, whether it’s science or history, you learn a tremendous amount, but the writing is always fresh, funny, special. It’s never lame. He never stops paying attention to the language he’s using to present the information. And he’s effortlessly funny. Early on, I would turn to his books. Susan Orlean is a writer—she’s not really a science writer—but she conveys a lot of information, whether it’s historical or natural history. It’s all done in the matrix of this lovely writing and this kind of affection and way of seeing and presenting her characters and storytelling. Those are two writers who do it so very well. And, you know, there are lots of others along the way. Burkhard Bilger is that New Yorker writer; he has a book out, but mostly it’s New Yorker pieces. Again, there’s a surprising science story he’s often telling, but it’s told in such a way that you’re just drawn in by his writing and his reporting and the way he understands and describes his characters. Lots of New Yorker writers are very, very good at that: weaving narrative and fact. There’s a book called The Fruit Hunters that I don’t think was widely read, and it at first doesn’t sound like a scintillating topic, but it was the most magically written, amazingly researched, delightful, surprising book. Adam Gollner wrote it. I reviewed it for the Times, and I would never have picked it up because I don’t think of myself as somebody fascinated by fruit. But I was given this book to review, and I was like, “Holy shit! This is amazing!” I didn’t want that book to end. And John McPhee, another writer with such a love for this world he immerses himself in and these unusual characters he meets; often there’s an element of science and explanation that’s seamlessly worked into those stories.
H & S: I must say, coming to the alimentary canal, I didn’t at first think, “Oh, that’s the most fascinating thing ever,” but after reading Gulp, I wanted more, I wanted to know more about the different systems and whatnot.
MR: I think that’s true with a bunch of my topics. If you don’t know anything about my work, the topic itself may not sound that great. Like Packing for Mars: you have to imagine people going, “Oh, I’m not interested in space.” I’m like, “No, dude, you are! You just don’t know it yet. You definitely are interested in space travel.” It’s my job to persuade people that, in fact, they are interested. It’s easier with something like Bonk or Stiff, where there’s a natural curiosity—I mean, everybody is interested in sex, and we all die, so there’s sort of a kind of weird kind of revulsion /attraction to that topic.
H & S: Could you tell us a little bit about how you decide what goes into a book and what stays out?
MR: Oh, it’s simple. It’s kind of the greatest hits, you know. Gulp is by no means a comprehensive look at digestion. I completely gloss over the liver. I don’t spend any time on the absorption, you know—the way nutrients are turned into things and are absorbed into cells. None of that! Boring. Who cares? I’m writing with this sense of what the average person might be fascinated by, and I am that average person, because I didn’t—I don’t—have a background in biology or physiology. It’s very much me writing to a large room full of people exactly like me. It’s entirely an intuitive sense of, If I find it fascinating, they’re going to find it fascinating. And I get easily bogged down in a lot of minutiae. I mean, a lot of what goes on in science now is protein receptors and genetics and invisible things. Anybody who’s looking for a comprehensive look at the topic will be disappointed in my books.
H & S: Are the footnotes in your books leftovers of things that you found interesting but couldn’t fit in anywhere?
MR: That’s exactly what they are. I get easily distracted, and I look things up on the Internet, and I find something out that I wasn’t looking for but that I can’t leave out because it was just too funny or surprising or bizarre. They’re things that I discovered when I was doing that—so it’s just me indulging that need to share something with the reader. It doesn’t fit the narrative; as a parenthetical it would be too disruptive, so I throw it into a footnote.
H & S: Was there anything during your research process for Gulp that really surprised you? We were surprised, especially at how open some of your interviewees were. Like the prisoner who would talk about the contraband, things like that.
MR: Just about everything, because the things I want to put in are the things that surprise me. I think surprise is something a reader enjoys. They think, “Oh, this is something I had no idea existed. I had no idea people did this!” And that’s what I, as a reader, always like. I’m not surprised by how open people are, because most of the time they’re talking about something that is their 9 to 5, whether it’s saliva research or smuggling tobacco in and out of the prison you’re in. It isn’t weird to them, so they talk about it. I’m always very happy when people are willing to be open about something that seems awkward to those outside that realm. The openness wasn’t surprising. But everything in that book is something I didn’t know before, so it was all super-surprise. The whole tube was a surprise to me.
H & S: Looking back at all your research, the hours and hours, is there a favorite part that sticks out: a moment, or something you learned?
MR: I remember the people more than the facts. I have such a vivid memory of sitting in a cafeteria in that restaurant of the future, you know—sitting there with that little elfin man who’s been studying the physics of crispy-crunchy for . . . I don’t know, seven years, and the guy hates chips. He doesn’t eat snack food. That kind of moment: it’s often something you learn about a person that stands out. Or like Erika Saleti, the saliva researcher. At one point we’re sitting having a conversation about the antibacterial talents of saliva and she actually slams the table, she’s so enthusiastic—and, you know, we were talking about spit. Those moments I love, and I tend to remember them more than the bits and pieces of scientific information.
H & S: What advice would you give to a writer who wants to do the kind of writing you do?
MR: Stop right there and don’t try. Don’t try to do what I do, and don’t try to do what Susan Orlean does. It’s so important to be—I mean, it sounds really trite—but to be your own writer, because the way that you will find an audience, by providing something new and unusual, something people will talk about. I think the reason Stiff became a bestseller is because people talked about it. They said, “Wow, I’m reading this book about dead people, and it’s kind of funny.” And people thought, “What? Why would a book about dead people be funny? Why would anybody write that?” You want people to sit up and take notice. Each writer has some very unique way of expressing themselves and their interests that’s like no one else. Protect that and nurture it and celebrate it because that’s what will make you stand out and make people want to come back and read your books. Like that book right now, The Martian. Have you heard of it? It’s a novel written by a space geek and an engineer. He was turned down by agents; now the book is on The New York Times bestseller list. It’s got five thousands comments on Amazon, and it is like no other book. It is unbelievably technical and geeky, but it is like nothing else. People are reading it and talking about it, and it caught on. I mean, this is a guy who’s figuring out how to grow potatoes from chemical constituents on Mars— it’s all very accurate and above my head, but I couldn’t stop reading because he has this understanding of space and what it would take to survive if you were marooned on Mars. He didn’t go to the Iowa fiction writing program; he didn’t do anything most novelists who succeed have done, yet he created this book that a lot of people are drawn to and really enjoy. So, that’s a very very long answer to your question.
H & S: We know you don’t often like to share what you’re working on next, but we were wondering if you could give us a little hint on or what’s coming next from Mary Roach?
MR: I’ll give you a hint that really won’t help you at all. I just got back from Djibouti.
H & S: Djibouti? Was it very hot there?
MR: It was very, very hot. It was over 100 degrees. So there’s your not-very-helpful hint.
People In Profile
People in Profile was Mrs. Leavenworth’s own creation. It had originally started with historical figures in general, but by the second year she had changed it to humanitarians. There ought to be a good reason why a child should get dressed up as someone from history and sit on a stage being interviewed about their life and their historical significance as their parents watched. She didn’t want them to think of it as Halloween. She wanted the night to take a side.
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For the Russian community of Berlin in the late summer and fall of 1927, Nikitin’s name was on many people’s lips. “Have you heard him?’ they’d ask each other. “Have you listened to his songs?” At first, only a few recognized the name, since, upon his arrival from somewhere in the east, he played only in small, dingy clubs like The Steppes and The Three Crows. I knew those places: they were dark, smoke-filled caves where bored waiters passed among tables illuminated by flickering votive lights, each table an island where the shipwrecked inhabitants, almost exclusively male, huddled over glasses of cheap vodka and talked at each other, oblivious to the presence of their listeners, in fact, oblivious to everything but the sound of their own voices telling their stories of broken hearts and lost opportunities.
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The school where Kyle and Meg taught was a ’70s-era brick and concrete sprawl, the work of an architect who, the students took a perverse satisfaction in discovering, had made his name designing penitentiaries. It had four floors and fourteen stairwells, but Kyle and Meg’s particular cubicles opened onto the same communal office, which meant they shared a fridge and a microwave and the usual banalities. She regarded his lunchtime runs and fist bumps for students who attended office hours with a mixture of envy and skepticism. She thought he was like a commercial for something, though she couldn’t say what. When the students swooned over him—boys and girls alike; or rather, the girls first and therefore also the boys, all of them equally, ridiculously awestruck—it made her slightly nauseated, not least of all because she didn’t think that he would have used the correct adjective for her gastric state, although he taught English. It made her feel old, resenting the carelessness with which adolescents bestowed their affections. Most of the time, though, she didn’t think of him.
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The Grinning Boy
There was a certain bar in Charlestown that his father frequented after work at the Schrafft’s candy factory. The boy and his brothers knew to stay upwind when their father would come home three sheets to leeward, smelling more of whiskey than of sweets, a sure sign that the workday had been a bad one and he’d stopped for a topper to flood the poison. “He’s back from Cloisters,” they’d whisper to each other, the signal to steer clear.
They knew the place only by reputation until one Saturday afternoon when their mother, woozy with flu, begged their father to take their sons’ cacophony from the house and the father pushed the boy and his brothers out the door and on toward the bar. The boy wondered at first why their father hadn’t just ordered them outside until dusk. Perhaps their visit to the Cloisters simply indicated a man drawn by habit down a well-rutted path. But their father’s bearing indicated he was in fine paternal fettle that day—This is what it means to be man of the house—and in keeping with the mood, he had perhaps decided to extend his sons’ moral instruction.
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Ranching on Dry Ground
On top of one of the mesas at the ranch at sunset while looking out above a valley toward other distant blue mesas, the view is a grandiose background for a Western movie or a chorus singing, “O beautiful for spacious skies. . . .” The chorus would be standing on dry ground.
This ranch I eventually inherited is, by Southwestern measures, a small one spreading over parts of Lampasas and Coryell counties in central Texas. Roughly arrow-shaped, it’s located in the northernmost hill country. From horseback in the spring, the land resembles a large English park until you get down from the saddle and something bites or scratches you.
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Some Notes on Success
What did it mean to be twenty-four? I would like to know how I would have defined success. I know what I desired: to be a rock star and a twenty-four-year-old novelist, in that order. But success is not simply the fulfillment of desire, and I was not yet a rock star or a novelist. I was, after all, twenty-four. I was an editor at a national magazine and a bluegrass mandolin player, both of which were like what I desired, and not. I was living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and working in Midtown Manhattan. I was full of ambition. I had not the slightest inkling of how to get what I wanted.
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